Throughout my career – both as a freelancer and at organisations like ShareAction and the New Economics Foundation – I’ve been privileged to work with some amazing human beings as part of collective efforts to build a more just, democratic and sustainable world. Below are just a few past projects that are particularly close to my heart.
Unfortunately I’m not currently accepting requests for freelance research or project work, as I am working part-time for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation alongside finishing my book. I’m really excited about writing the next chapter of this story with them.
Understanding pandemic inequalities
In the early days of the first lockdown, I was approached by the wonderful Carys Roberts at IPPR and asked if there were any questions I wanted to explore. I raised my nagging concern that the economic pain of the pandemic was being shouldered almost entirely by working people, while rentier interests – such as banks and landlords – were being almost entirely shielded, and in some cases implicitly bailed out, by government policy. Carys commissioned me to look into this alongside my regular partner-in-crime Laurie Macfarlane and IPPR’s Shreya Nanda, and together we wrote “Who Wins and Who Pays? Rentier power and the covid crisis.”
I’m really proud of this report, which we turned around in just a few weeks during an incredibly chaotic period. It became one of the most-read on IPPR’s website that year, helping to shape the debate about UK inequalities through the pandemic and beyond. Many of our predictions have been borne out by events – from the widening gulf between those who spent lockdown building up savings and those forced into debt, to small businesses struggling under the weight of rent arrears and crisis loan repayments. The question now is what we are going to do about it.
Finding common ground
I love facilitating conversations which help groups of people to understand their shared story better and see their place in the bigger picture. I firmly believe that it is only by harnessing our collective wisdom that we will find solutions to the existential challenges we face.
For the New Economy Organisers Network’s Common Agenda process, I used dozens of individual and group conversations to build up a picture of the positive values and principles the network held in common. We then iterated this with network members themselves over a series of workshops. The project’s genesis lay in a widespread frustration that large parts of the new economy movement were stuck in oppositional mode – defined by positions such as being anti-austerity. I like to think that this work played a small part in giving the wider movement a clearer sense of purpose and of the world we wanted to build together.
In 2020, I organised a series of online participatory workshops on the “post-pandemic economy”, co-hosted with the incredibly talented Gemma Bone and funded by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, on topics ranging from childcare to personal debt. We explicitly sought to bring together people who wouldn’t normally talk to each other – from those with direct experience of the issues to economists and those trying to build alternatives – to talk about the challenges and opportunities the pandemic was creating and the next steps towards change. The resulting conversations ranged from the heartbreaking to the energising and left us with a renewed sense of vision and determination.
Over a decade of hosting such conversations, I’ve been repeatedly struck by how, when we dig beneath rigid political or factional labels and talk about what actually needs to change, we often find more common ground than we might suppose.
Reimagining the banking system
Whilst at NEF, I helped lead and develop the organisation’s work on banking reform, building on the trailblazing work of Tony Greenham and Lydia Prieg. We partnered with Move Your Money and SumOfUs to run a campaign calling for RBS – then majority owned by the government – to be broken up into a network of local banks modelled on the German Sparkassen. Over 120,000 people signed our petition, and our proposals were also debated in parliament, as well as being widely covered in print and broadcast media – successfully shifting the terms of debate on the bank’s future.
Separately, we produced a paper – authored by the brilliant Laurie Macfarlane – which directly influenced the establishment and design of a new Scottish National Investment Bank. Laurie and I later worked together on a report for the Labour Party, generously funded by the Communication Workers Union and The Democracy Collaborative, setting out proposals for how a UK National Investment Bank could work alongside a Post Bank – providing affordable basic banking services through the Post Office network – and a reformed RBS.
Unfortunately, the government chose to press ahead with the reprivatisation of RBS, crystallising a loss of over £20bn and passing up a once-in-a-generation opportunity to transform banking for good. But the proposals for a Post Bank and National Investment Bank are still there, should any future government be minded to pick them up…
Rethinking investors’ duties
Whilst working at ShareAction, I learned more than any human being could possibly wish to know about investors’ “fiduciary duties”. These legal duties exist to ensure that institutions like pension funds take good care of their members’ money, but are often mischaracterised as a “duty to maximise returns” which prevents trustees from considering social or environmental issues. This was already an issue close to my heart – as a student campaigner and member of my College Council, I’d had these same arguments weaponised to try and cow the trustees into rejecting a proposed ethical investment policy.
Our report “Protecting Our Best Interests“, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, dug deep into case law to argue that this was a flawed and dangerous misreading of the legal position. The report became a touchstone for those making the case for responsible investment practices, and I was even asked to contribute chapters to a couple of academic textbooks on fiduciary duty – co-authored with the wonderful and deeply knowledgeable lawyer Charles Scanlan, to whom this whole project is deeply indebted.
Our extensive advocacy work – engaging particularly with Vince Cable’s Department for Business and the Kay Review of UK Equity Markets – also led directly to a Law Commission review which clarified that investors could and should take environmental and social issues into account. ShareAction continue to lobby for legislation to widen and update our understanding of ‘best interests’ – for instance, to reflect the fact that pension savers just might have an interest in a liveable planet to retire on…
Defending the right to protest
In my first job in the UK parliament, I worked with James Lloyd and David Howarth MP to expose and challenge police abuse of environmental protestors. Our investigative work – which proved that Kent Police had misled parliament by suggesting police injuries at the Kingsnorth Climate Camp had been caused by violent protestors rather than, er, “possible wasps” – made the front page of the Guardian and forced the Minister for Policing to apologise. The story also went viral and has had hands-down the biggest reach of anything I’ve ever done: it is still widely shared today whenever policing of protest is in the news.
We later submitted evidence to the various inquiries that followed the death of Ian Tomlinson at the G20 protests in London, including by the Home Affairs Select Committee, Independent Police Complaints Commission and Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary. This ultimately helped lead to new guidance and real changes in the way protests were policed. Sadly, much of this progress has now been undone by Priti Patel’s draconian crackdown on the right to protest. But I’m proud that we played a small part in making peaceful protestors – at least for a while – that bit safer on our streets.